On Thursday, he travels to Burnley, the scene of riots in 2001, to announce a clampdown on state benefits paid to asylum seekers, even though fewer than 47 refugees currently live in the Lancashire town.

More worrying, Aljazeera.net has seen unreleased police statistics showing that race hate crimes in Burnley rose by nearly 30% last year.
 
The figures are in a funding proposal put to the Commission for Racial Equality by East Lancashire Together, an anti-racist coalition that cooperates closely with the Community Cohesion Board, a liaison group between the council and police.
 
The survey of reported racial incidents, which was never made public, covers the same period in which the extreme rightwing British National Party (BNP) won seven seats on the town council and briefly became the official opposition.

One well-placed council insider attributed its non-disclosure to "a police habit of keeping their cards close to their chest".

But he added that Stuart Caddy, the leader of the Labour-controlled council, would have known about the figures, as a member and sometime chairman of the Cohesion Board.

Failing policies
 
Caddy told Aljazeera.net that he had no knowledge of them.

"Racist attacks in Burnley are at a minimum compared to two or three years ago," he said. "They have to be coming down. There is a lot of togetherness in the borough now."

"If racial attacks go up, we have failed, the police have failed, and all the people who have been working together to tackle racism through our community plan and community cohesion will have failed"

Stuart Caddy,
leader, Burnley Council

"If racial attacks go up, we have failed, the police have failed, and all the people who have been working together to tackle racism through our community plan and community cohesion will have failed."

Anti-racist groups say that the real failure is a strategy of denying the  reality of racial attacks in the borough.
 
"Sweeping the problem under the carpet will not make it go away," said Milena Buyum, spokesperson for the National Assembly Against Racism.

"Only very firm action against hate crimes will send a message that the authorities are taking the issue seriously.

"Hate crime is a crime first of all and unless it is dealt with, it will not disappear."

Shocking trends

According to the figures in the funding proposal, reported racial incidents in the town rose by 29% in 2003, from 251 per 100,000 people in 2003 to 324 per 100,000 people.

One Labour councillor, who asked not to be named, described the statistics revealed in the funding proposal as "deeply shocking" and linked them directly to the BNP's electoral success.

The Conservative leader Michael
Howard visits Burnley on Thursday

"Despite their protests, the BNP are clearly a racist party," he said.

"They are a different animal from mainstream political parties and the election of their councillors has legitimised their racist views."

He called for a massive injection of government funds to tackle deprivation in white and Asian communities across the borough.

The BNP is expected to stand between 400 and 600 candidates in nationwide council elections this June. Its leader, Nick Griffin, is widely tipped to contest a northwest seat for the European parliament.

It has been estimated that he could win the seat with just nine per cent of the popular vote, if elector turnout falls to a predicted 18%.

Fleeing danger

In a reversal of the "white flight" phenomenon, the rise in racial tension that has accompanied the BNP's electoral success is already leading some Asian residents to flee to safer neighbourhoods.

Tanveer Javed, a 32-year-old computer shop owner, said he was putting his house on the market to move to Manchester.

"The problem is that no white people come into my shop," he said. "Racial harassment has become so much the norm around here that you don't even register it after a while.

"I'm the only Asian person who lives on my street and you can feel the racism in the way people look at you. They won't approach you and say hello. They won't even catch your eye.

"I don't feel wanted or part of the community because of the colour of my skin and it's weird."

In an unpublicised poll of 682 Burnley residents conducted last summer and included in the CRE funding proposal, 34% of Asian respondents said they had been victims of a hate crime.

But only 19% of this group said they had reported the crime to the police.

Community conflict

Seventy three per cent of residents felt there was "a lot or quite a lot of community tension and conflict in Burnley", while 65% felt that people from different backgrounds in the town did not get on very well.

A further 56% of white respondents said that they personally had "little or no understanding of different cultures and religions".

"I've always been a Labour man but if the BNP said they'd clean this area up, I'd probably vote for them"

Derek Pearson,
former miner

In Burnley Wood, a poverty-stricken white neighbourhood a kilometre from the town hall, the alienation of working class white residents was clear.

Derek Pearson, a 64-year-old former miner said: "People are supporting the BNP because they're against the Pakistanis. But it's also because the council is doing nothing to get rid of the rats. There are dirty backyards, dirty streets and smashed-up homes all over Burnley Wood.

"I've always been a Labour man," he added, "but if the BNP said they'd clean this area up, I'd probably vote for them."

Climate of fear

Sher Ali Miah, the secretary of Burnley's Bangladesh Welfare Association, said the result of such attitudes was a climate of fear in his community.

"Children are now frightened to go into the town centre on their own," he said. "They are always alert and looking over their shoulder whenever they do."

The Liberal Democrat Councillor Moazaquir Ali blamed Labour party activists for making the problem worse by repeating myths and rumours started by the BNP.

"Longstanding Labour supporters and councillors went to pubs and clubs in Cliviger last year, saying that all the council's money was going to Asians in Danes House and Stoneyholme.

"They thought they would get support by going with the tide, but they ended up being unseated."

Michael Howard, the son of Romanian immigrants, will make his own contribution to Burnley's crisis on Thursday.

In what is being billed as a "positive speech", he will call for money saved from paying state benefits to "bogus" asylum seekers to be used to recruit an extra 5000 police officers.